'There's no school for my child': Parents of pupils with additional needs turn to unregulated education

Like many eight-year-olds, Madeleine enjoys playing with her dolls at home. Unlike most children her age, however, it's how she spends many afternoons while her peers are in school.

Madeleine is not on the roll at any school, not because she's home educated or through choice, but because she has autism. Her anxiety means she needs a high level of support.

Every school approached by her local council in West Yorkshire said they were unable to meet her needs.

"There wasn't a school that could accommodate her level of need without disrupting other children," her mother Emma says.

"We believed that they contacted about 11 schools, possibly a few more than that," Emma says. "They received all the replies back and they were negative."

With no state school options, Madeleine's parents were given a budget for "education other than at school", known as EOTAS.

It means her mother has had to give up work and find places for Madeleine to learn outside of the recognised school system.

"I believe that the education system as it is now is archaic and I believe it is failing children with autism," she says.

"We were left with no other option. There wasn't anything else."

Madeleine's situation is far from unique. Figures from the Department for Education show last year there were 8,400 children with EOTAS.

Many are now being taught in places that are outside of the recognised education system.

After carrying out her own research, Madeleine's mother found a setting run by two mothers of autistic children who are both trained teachers.

They have turned a room at Upwood holiday caravan park, in a remote part of West Yorkshire, into a classroom and have named the setting Bud@Upwood.

Kate Hudson, head of provision, says: "I was in the position a few years ago where my daughter could not attend a mainstream school.

"So I decided there was a gap that needed filling and hearing other people's stories of where parents are left with a child or young person at home and nothing is provided for them, it was just a decision that had to be made."

In the classroom, Madeleine and the other children, who all attend on a part-time basis, receive one-to-one tuition.

Madeleine's mother says it's the first time she's been able to access education without experiencing anxiety and meltdowns.

"We feel like we can see light at the end of the tunnel now," she says.

But the setting is part of a controversial sector known as unregistered alternative provision.

These are places that offer teaching but because they're part-time and have very small numbers of pupils, they don't need to register with the education watchdog Ofsted.

It means they're largely unregulated, and it's not known how many of these settings there are across the country.

It's estimated around 20,000 children attend them and many have special educational needs (SEN).

Ofsted says the number of placements has been increasing since 2017 but the exact number isn't known because they're not overseen by the Department for Education, local authorities or the education regulator.

In some of the settings, Ofsted is concerned that children are provided with low standards of education and there are a range of safety and safeguarding concerns.

Georgina Durrant, who works as an SEN consultant providing advice to families and schools, says they exist to meet a growing need.

'How do we know these children are being well looked after?'

"Quite frankly these unregistered alternative provisions are propping up the education system because we don't have places for these children," Ms Durrant says.

"Obviously there are going to be some brilliant examples of alternative provision that's unregistered.

"But there's also, because it's not registered, because there's no oversight on this, how do we know they're doing a good job? How do we know these children are being well looked after?

"These are very vulnerable children with special educational needs and disabilities," she says. "They might not be able to communicate. And we're trusting these children in these settings with these people that we don't know as much about as we should do."

Yet the demand for places at these settings can be partly explained by the numbers.

Figures from the Department for Education show the number of children with SEN increased by 87,146 between the years 2021/22 and 2022/23, but the number of state-funded special school places rose by just 7,017.

Read more from Sky News:
Trainee teachers to be offered fee-free degrees
People with suspected autism forced to do own research
Majority of headteachers believe Ofsted system 'unreliable'

'More and more' schools are turning children away, says headteacher

However, that doesn't explain why mainstream schools are refusing to offer places to some children with additional needs.

Headteacher Simon Kidwell, who is president of the National Association of Headteachers, says he's hearing "more and more" of schools turning children away.

He accuses the Department for Education of creating "perverse incentives within the system".

He explains schools that do accept more pupils with special educational needs find it "more difficult to go and reach those very high results that some schools reach".

"It's also the perverse incentive of funding as well because we have to go and fund the first £6,000 in our school for every child with additional needs," he says.

Among the other headteachers he meets around the country, Mr Kidwell says the "number one concern for the next election, for the next government, is how they're going to resolve the issues around special needs".

Madeleine's mother agrees. "It's absolutely a funding thing," she says. "Not enough money has been ploughed into education but the expectations on schools have grown.

"I know that our local primary school would have done anything they could to help and support Madeleine but they're not given the right funding."

A Department for Education spokesperson told Sky News: "We want all children to meet their full potential, and councils are responsible for making sure there is appropriate education and support for all children in their area.

"Where a child has an Education, Health and Care plan, it is usually best for them to be educated in a school or college. For a small number of children, this will not be the case and local authorities may decide it is in their best interests to be educated elsewhere.

"To support local authorities, we are increasing high needs funding for children and young people with complex needs to a total of over £10.5bn in 2024-25 - an increase of over 60% since 2019-20."